Instructors in the Wim Hof Method (WHM) are trained to guide people through meditation and breathing techniques, specified yoga poses and exposure to the cold, such as an ice bath. At the end of a two year period, thirty individuals are invited to complete their training in Przieka, Poland, in the Giant mountain area close to the Czech border, where Wim Hof has a retreat. There is fierce competition to be one of the thirty, but once you’re there, you’re not competing anymore, you just have to prove that you have what it takes to be a sensitive and humane instructor. In fact, it was a very collegiate atmosphere, similar to a hippy commune, probably because exposure to the cold brings deeply buried emotions to the fore.
Half of us stayed at Wim’s retreat, the other half checked in to a very basic local hotel. The temperatures were eye-wateringly cold. Minus 8 to minus 10, and there we were, wandering around by the waterfall in our underwear, an object of intense fascination and amusement to the locals.
We received various lectures from Professor Pierre Capel (whose work we draw on for our book), on the physiological effects of the cold, and the effects of meditation on the body.
When I first began the breathing techniques, my breath retention ability was about 45 seconds. With daily practice, it increased to 2.5 – 3 minutes, and now is upwards of three to four minutes. The body constantly adapts itself to shock, so through practice, it’s possible to increase the ability to withstand oxygen deprivation.
Our day started at 7am. Our first activity was to lie down (all thirty of us) in a dark room. We all lay on sleeping bags very close to one another, separated only by a few centimetres. Our instructor, Casper, then took us through some rigorous breathing exercises. It was tremendously difficult for many reasons; I was hemmed in by thirty strangers; my physical space was completely invaded. We were all breathing like asthmatic walruses; the noise was incredible. The dark and the strangeness of it had a weird effect on us; obviously we were all in various stages of hyperventilation. After a few minutes, I heard someone sobbing. A few others began to cry, to panic, someone even started screaming. All the while, I tried to focus on my breathing, and began to experiment with myself just to get through what was an extremely long hour. Casper played oriental meditative music, and used coloured psychedelic lights while he guided us through the breathing. We were all forced to look inwards, and some people found it almost impossible to control their emotions. If you were lying next to a screamer, you just had to put up with it, and hope it wouldn’t be you shrieking your head off next.
After this cathartic/traumatic (depending on your viewpoint) experience, we then had breakfast. The food was diabolical. I had to remind myself that we hadn’t come for the cuisine.
When the body is stressed or undergoing any kind of physical or emotional trauma, adrenaline and cortisol levels shoot up. Everyone who has undergone training in the WHM becomes convinced that the body increases production of beneficial hormones, specifically serotonin, the Dr. Feelgood of hormones, and the peace and cuddling hormone, oxytocin. However, this hasn’t been proven academically. If it can be proven that these can be controlled, then the application for the treatment of depression and a host of other illnesses could be huge.
During the week, we were each required to give a fifteen-minute presentation focused on answering three questions:
- Who are you?
- What formed you?
- What are you doing here, and why do you want to be part of this community?
I was the third person to present. My presentation was light-hearted, but it had a serious message. I told a story about Bubu and Zuzu, the two alien hippos that flew by fart power, which I’d invented for my children when they were small. I invented Bubu and Zuzu mainly to entertain them, but also to gently teach them how to deal with isolation, with bullying, with racism, with the sense of being ‘other’, a feeling which two mixed-race boys are almost certainly going to feel at some point as they are growing up in a white country. The role of stories in the lives of children are incredibly powerful, not only sparking their imagination, but also helping them to develop empathy by seeing the world through other eyes.
Mine was only one of a handful of presentations which were light-hearted. The vast majority of attendees were still haunted by childhood traumas, carrying around bad experiences and memories, often to do with parents, families and their upbringing, and some of the presentations were harrowing in the extreme. Overall, fathers got a really bad rap, for abandonment, neglect, sometimes abuse, but mostly for setting unrealistic expectations for their kids, forcing them to conform to improbable ideas of perfection, rather than allowing their children to discover and develop their own talents and to pursue activities that they loved. Some of the presentations were very memorable and moving.
One in particular really struck me. It was by a woman from Antwerp who had been told from her infancy that she was nothing special and would never amount to much. She had internalised this message and accepted it, as she never knew any different. She got married, had children, and trained to be a hairdresser, even managing to buy her own salon. At some point she had an epiphany. She realised that she did not regard herself merely as a hairdresser, but as someone who had the gift of making another person feel special, beautiful. She decided to do the WHM course to develop an innate power that she believed everyone has, including herself. During the course, she realised that she had married someone who treated her just as her father did. She rejected this inferior role that was thrust upon her, and because her husband would not accept her new self-image, she broke up with him. The course was instrumental to her own self-emancipation. During her presentation, she explained her whole philosophy on how to make someone feel beautiful, and it had nothing to do with looks.
Another striking presentation was by the fittest person in the group, a Green Beret marine. In his childhood, he was happy and doing well at school. Then his father pushed him from 6th grade to 8th grade. Very naturally, he struggled to keep up with kids two years older than himself, and his confidence plummeted. Nevertheless, by sheer dint of hard work and will-power, he persevered with studies which initially were too advanced for him, and he graduated from high school. He is now incredibly successful in business, continuing to fulfil the narrative that his father had set for him. He decided to do the WHM course because he realised that he should do things that interest him and make him happy, rather than continue to blindly continue to fulfil his father’s expectations. His father had never once stopped to wonder whether his son was happy; now the son realised that the responsibility for his own happiness rested solely with himself.
Between listening to the presentations, we performed various exercises and tasks. For example, we had to walk in the snow barefoot, an activity we could not sustain for more than two or three minutes. While our extremities were at risk, the cold did not extend past our calves, reassuring me that climbing a mountain in our underwear was feasible, as long as our hands and feet were well protected. It gave me a new insight into Wim’s ability to run marathons in the snow in his bare feet. It is simply astonishing that he has been able to do this without damaging himself, further proof that mind really is more powerful than matter. Or rather, as Professor Capel emphasises; ‘mind is matter’.
After lunch (dreadful), we split up into groups: one day we’d go to the Cathedral and have an ice bath beneath the waterfall, and the other day we’d climb the mountain, to one of three different peaks. It’s hard to describe the feeling of joy that overtakes you after soaking yourself beneath a waterfall in winter. The room for error was tiny: after dunking ourselves in a freezing torrent, we had to dress rapidly, but had to thoroughly dry between our toes, when our hands were frozen into fists. I couldn’t have taken more than two minutes to get dressed, despite having hands like hams, but my swim trunks froze solid in that time.
The climbs were extraordinary. In only shorts, socks and climbing shoes, we climbed beyond the treeline, through the clouds and into sunshine. The Snezka range is beautiful, and we quickly forgot about the cold once we were on the move. Our guides were fully clothed in winter gear, so that they would be able to help us if anything went wrong, for example drastic weather change, or in the event of injury. As good disciples of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we got into the zone during the climbs, and genuinely enjoyed exposing our skin to the elements, appreciating the ascent and not obsessing wholly with getting to the top.
Wim Hof’s dog accompanied us on all our climbs, a good-natured chocolate Labrador very protective of her master. As the air thinned, she began circling him, wanting to keep him safe and making it clear she needed his protection.
The Snezka Challenge: On the day I was due to summit the highest peak, the weather turned dramatically. One of the climbers in another group had an emotional breakdown, and was unable to continue with the ascent, equally unable to return to base without help. The guides decided that we should all turn back. During my goal-oriented, ambitious younger days, this would have driven me demented, but I found I had no issue with letting the peak go. The mountain wasn’t going anywhere. If I couldn’t do it this trip, I could do it another time. It was the first time in my life that I was completely powerless, unable to help anyone. I had to focus every ounce of energy into getting myself down the mountain, but once I got into my stride, I found a rhythm and I ran all the way down, completely in a state of flow.
The days passed quickly. When not dunking ourselves in ice or climbing, we would help each other with our presentations and with our training techniques, and our day would end after dinner (ghastly, but starvation is seldom an attractive option…) and we’d go to sleep at around 10 or 11pm after relaxing with a whisky or a wine (the quality of the booze was pretty awful too, but by then even methylated spirits would have tasted good). At the end of each day, we were beyond exhausted.
Once the week was up, we had confided things about ourselves that we had never shared with anyone. More importantly, we had confronted things that we preferred to keep hidden, even from ourselves. We had to accept our own weaknesses, even while striving to work on them, and aiming for empathy with others, of ‘walking a mile in their shoes’. It’s impossible to judge at face value what kind of battles people have had to fight, even from earliest childhood, not to mention the demons they continue to wrestle with for the rest of their lives. ‘Be tolerant of others and strict with yourself,’ said Marcus Aurelius, which neatly sums up the essence of the WHM.